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FBI director warns that Chinese hackers are still targeting US COVID-19 research

FBI director warns that Chinese hackers are still targeting US COVID-19 research
© Reuters/Pool

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday said Chinese hackers are continuing to target U.S. companies involved in COVID-19 research and described China as the nation’s “greatest counterintelligence threat.”

“We are seeing very aggressive activity by the Chinese, and in some cases by others, to target our COVID-related research, whether it’s vaccines, treatments, testing technology, etc.,” Wray testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a hearing on threats to the U.S. 

“Sometimes, without being too descriptive in an open setting, we can almost track a news report from some company or research institution that is announcing or revealing some progress ... and then almost within days we will see cyber targeting that ties back to Chinese actors focusing on those institutions,” Wray said. 

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When questioned by Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMurkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade Infrastructure, energy investments urgently needed to create U.S. jobs Justice Department charges Google with illegally maintaining search monopoly MORE (R-Mo.) about the types of information the Chinese actors were targeting, Wray said that the efforts were aimed at helping China get ahead of the U.S. in coronavirus research and drug development, similar to the country's efforts in a number of sectors.

“Rather than innovate themselves, they are trying to essentially jump to the front of the line by stealing information from others,” Wray testified. 

The FBI director’s comments come months after the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that Chinese government-backed hackers were targeting U.S. groups involved in research and development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

Russia and Iran have also been seen targeting companies involved in COVID-19 research. 

The U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada separately released a joint alert in July warning that a Russian-linked hacking group was attempting to target and steal from these companies, while Reuters reported in May that Iranian hackers had targeted U.S. drug company Gilead Sciences Inc., a key group involved in development of COVID-19 treatments. 

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The Department of Justice has announced indictments against numerous foreign individuals and hacking groups over the past months, including two Chinese hackers allegedly involved in targeting and hacking hundreds of groups, including U.S. companies researching COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

Wray pointed to these indictments on Thursday in detailing overall concerns about Chinese hacking efforts against U.S. citizens and companies. 

“The standards that the Intelligence Community uses for attribution are different than say those the private sector might use, but as I sometimes say nothing says attribution like an indictment, and as you know, we’ve brought some significant indictments against Chinese hackers,” Wray said. 

“They are targeting not just American companies, American research institutions, but also similar institutions among some of our closest allies, and targeting PII, personally identifiable information of Americans,” Wray testified. “Chinese hackers have essentially stolen the PII of about half the adult population of the United States.”

Wray’s comments echoed those made to the House Homeland Security Committee last week, and likely refer to the 2017 data breach of credit agency Equifax, which exposed the personal information of around 145 million Americans. The Justice Department announced indictments earlier this year against four members of the Chinese military for the data breach, which constituted one of the largest in history.

The FBI director emphasized that the counterintelligence threat posed by Chinese targeting of U.S. companies was a major issue for the agency, testifying that the FBI was pursuing more than 2,000 active investigations tied to Chinese government activities, and that economic espionage investigations tied to China had increased 1,300 percent in the past decade. 

“There is no adversary that presents a broader and more comprehensive threat to our democratic ideas, our innovation, our economic security than the government of China,” Wray said. “This is a major, major issue and it’s our highest counterintelligence priority for a reason because it’s going to shape what this country is like in 25 or 30 years.”